Largest Human Trafficking Case in U.S. History
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal International, an Alabama-based shipbuilding company, used the government's H-2B guest worker program to import nearly 500 men from India to work to repair damaged oil rigs at its Mississippi and Texas facilities. Lured by false promises of permanent U.S. residency for them and their families, the guest workers paid tens of thousands of dollars each in recruitment fees and other costs to obtain temporary jobs at Gulf Coast shipyards. When the men arrived, they discovered that they would not receive the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised. Signal also forced them each to pay $1,050 per month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared double-wide trailers, with 300 men total housed in camps the size of a baseball infield. Returning to India, however, was not a viable option because the men had gone deep into debt to pay the exorbitant recruiting fees.
Crowell & Moring and the Southern Poverty Law Center took on the federal lawsuit on behalf of the workers. In 2012, when class certification of the nearly 500 guest workers was denied by the Louisiana District Court, we charged on with a bold litigation strategy bringing a number of other prominent national law firms into the fold. We then proceeded to prosecute the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history, David v. Signal International, LLC.
We continued the case for the class representatives, taking their case to trial, and also sought to make sure no worker in the putative class was left behind. We worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center to devise and execute the strategy of having an unprecedented collaboration of law firms represent all the victims.
After a five-week trial, we secured $14.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages for the first five guest workers that went to trial. The jury found Signal guilty of engaging in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, breach of contract, and discrimination. The jury also found that one of the five plaintiffs was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation. The verdict pushed Signal into bankruptcy, and in those bankruptcy proceedings, a $22 million settlement agreement was reached to resolve the claims of all of the workers against Signal.
As a result of our success on the pro bono Signal matter, we received the Public Justice's 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award, which recognizes attorneys "who made the greatest contribution to the public interest within the past year by trying or settling a precedent-setting, socially significant case." Additionally, the case was recognized as the Global Pro Bono Dispute of the Year at the American Lawyer’s 2015 Global Legal Awards, and Crowell & Moring and the other firms involved received the “Global Citizen” grand prize. We were ranked number one by The Financial Times in the category "Social Responsibility – Pro Bono Cases" in its "Most Innovative North American Law Firms 2015" report. The verdict also caught the attention of the U.S. Department of State which in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report referenced Signal's $14 million verdict as "the largest ever awarded by a jury in a labor trafficking case in the United States."